Jana Riess comes to us as one of the regular Dialogue participants.
I just returned from a very encouraging conference for young Mormon scholars–the first-ever gathering of LDS graduate students who are getting advanced degrees in theology and religious studies. About 40 such students, plus a few spouses, convened at Yale Divinity School on Friday and Saturday. We had folks from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, UNC, Claremont, Iliff, the University of Durham, and the GTU, and I’m sure I’m forgetting a few schools. (All of our sessions were held in the RSV translation room, which felt very auspicious and cool.)
Sixteen students presented papers on everything from the Deutero-Isaiah theory and the Book of Mormon to the question of whether an LDS scholar is ipso facto a defender of the faith. All these papers were sandwiched between some great opening remarks by Richard Bushman, who helped conceive and organize the conference, and a closing session by Terryl Givens, who gave us a fascinating sneak preview of his cultural history of Mormonism, due out in August from Oxford University Press.
Despite a general sense of harmony, a few vigorous disagreements came up during the weekend. A lot of these discussions arose over the question of what, if anything, constitutes “faithful history,” and whether that is even a desirable goal for academics. What if, Richard Bushman asked, we could freely admit that we were believers, and want to discuss our faith in the light of scholarship? What does the world look like when seen through Mormon eyes?
I finished my doctorate more than six years ago now, and I kept thinking as I sat in these sessions how wonderful it is for these students to have each other. By the time I was in grad school, I knew a few isolated Mormons getting religion degrees at other institutions, though we didn’t have any sense of community. But when I’d been in seminary in the early 1990s, during my rather lengthy and tumultuous conversion from Presbyterianism to Mormonism, I didn’t know of a single other LDS person who was studying theology. It was very lonely at times.
Over the weekend, some of the most dynamic and interesting conversations happened (as they always do at conferences) during the breaks. Some of this felt like a foretaste of the kingdom, to get a little mushy about it. I had a roommate assigned to me who was a complete stranger at the beginning of the weekend and a kindred spirit by the end, after we’d stayed up late two nights talking, and finished up with a three-hour conversation on Sunday. I got the impression that many of us were starved for such conversations.
Part of that sense of desperation comes from a feeling many expressed of being caught in the middle, between an academy that remains suspicious of the specter of Mormon proselytizing and a church community that sometimes communicates a fear that, as one panelist put it, those who pursue advanced degrees in religion will “study [ourselves] out of the church” by continued theological exploration. That panelist quoted from a 1958 talk by Hugh B. Brown, which well summarized the hopes and feelings of many people at the conference:
“Seek truth in all fields, and in that search you will need at least three virtues; courage, zest, and modesty. The ancients put that thought in the form of a prayer. They said, ‘From the cowardice that shrinks from new truth, from the laziness that is content with half truth, from the arrogance that thinks it has all truth – O God of truth deliver us.'”